What a Researcher Learned From One School’s Underground Snack Market

Snack sales are a thriving business in many schools, whether the goods are being peddled to raise money for school clubs or as a lucrative sideline for entrepreneurial students.

But, with youth work opportunities still limited, cracking down on illicit snack sales in schools can have unintended consequences on student engagement, finds a new study published in March in the journal Youth and Society.

Karlyn Gorski, sociologist at the University of Chicago, has been studying a diverse, 1,800-student high school in the Windy City suburbs for the past three years. In the course of observing student engagement at the unnamed school, she stumbled upon a vibrant underground snack economy. Students bought chips and candy wholesale and resold them from backpacks in the halls or from backpacks; others baked trays of brownies and other sweets on a daily basis.

The school, which Gorski’s study dubbed “Hamilton High,” overwhelmingly serves low-income students of color: about 60 percent of whom were Hispanic, 30 percent Black, and less than 10 percent white. About 8 in 10 students come from low-income families. By contrast, Hamilton’s teachers were predominately white women whose incomes averaged nearly $100,000 a year.

Hamilton’s customer base was literally hungry. Students have on average 20 minutes of actual time to eat during lunch and the cafeteria has faced repeated complaints about food quality. Gorski, who ate school lunch herself for a year, said she periodically found still-frozen vegetables and nibbled-on rolls on her tray, and the servings rarely satisfied for the full day. Teachers generally permit students to eat in class, but the school’s few vending machines often run out and break down.

Snack sales highlight inequities

the Center for International Private Enterprise estimates that young adults ages 15 to 25 took twice the hit to their employment in the first years of the pandemic as did older adults. Even as the economy has improved, returning to those jobs has been tougher, with teenagers more likely to compete with adults.

Moreover, “not all of these kids are old enough to hold a job in the formal economy,” Gorski said. “It’s like having a lemonade stand, right? It’s what you can do when you’re that age.”

For many students, Gorski found making money from selling snacks actually helped them justify remaining engaged in school. For example, one football player turned to snack sales during the sports season to make up for the income he lost while being on the team. Others sold food when their after-school jobs didn’t contribute enough to their family income.

“Usually, when you’re in school, those are not economically productive hours. You’re not making any money,” she said. “So [selling food] is a way to turn that around and say, ‘I can make money while I’m in school’” rather than quitting school to take a full-time job.

One student, Chris, was in driver’s education class and made about $60 a day selling trays of large brownies for $2 each while saving up to buy a car. Eventually, he was caught by a teacher, who thought he was selling marijuana edibles rather than sweets. While he was eventually cleared of the drug accusation, his brownie business was shut down.

Hamilton did allow some student food sales: For example, the choir held snack sales to raise money for new costumes and the Spanish club did so for a field trip to Peru.

But Gorski found these school-approved sales generally benefited students of higher social class. “Most of the kids who were in clubs doing the fundraising, those were kids who tended to have pretty stable home lives, kids who had the time and money and energy to put into being active, regular members of clubs,” she said. “The kids who were selling [in the black market] were much more likely to come from home environments where they just straight up needed cash for themselves, for their siblings, for their parents. They were selling snacks to just contribute at home and didn’t have hours to spend after school being part of the show choir or whatever.”

Moreover, Gorski found that while adults spoke of stopping the underground snack market in terms likening it to an illegal drug market, there was not much overlap between the sellers of food and drugs at the school. “There’s this one teacher, Ms Kelly, talking about Carlos. And she’s like, ‘I really worry that he’s gonna go one way [to sell drugs], but he says he won’t sell drugs,’ ” she said. “And on Carlos’ part, he has very concrete goals about where he wants to get in life and how he wants to get there, and he doesn’t want to derail that by selling drugs. So one way that he can contribute to his family who really, really needs this money is by selling chips.
“He’s so adamant that he won’t sell drugs no matter what,” she said, “but this teacher still sees the sort of mental connection that like, well, if he’s doing this, he might just so quickly turn around and start doing that.”

Ironically, as administrators cracked down on the underground snack market, older students who were selling snacks began to “hire” younger students to pass along the chips and candy to avoid getting caught with it themselves, unconsciously mirroring the drug-market structure the adults were trying to avoid.

“They got yelled at for these things that they felt are really not hurting anybody—if anything, [they] are helping them focus, helping them get through a long day. And they just saw adults wagging their fingers at them and telling them that every coping strategy they had was unacceptable, then they turned around and said, ‘OK, then I won’t even try.’ And so they disengaged and came to really criticize the whole school as an institution,” Gorski said.

Moreover, students who were punished for their involvement in the snack market tended to disengage from school over the years of their observation.

Here are some alternatives to underground snack sales

While Hamilton did not have students with severe food allergies, Gorski said schools do often have strong needs to control food sales on campus, but she noted that schools can rethink their rules to take student perspective into account. Among her suggestions:

  • Explain the reasoning behind rules that may come across as subjective or arbitrary. “Kids are people too, and they are pretty reasonable when they are treated with respect,” Gorski said.
  • Consider the underlying needs driving the rule-breaking. Students regularly showed a need for more food, more-filling food, and more time to eat it. Studies have found that longer lunch periods and
    better school food can improve student behavior.
  • Promote positive alternatives. Junior Achievement, a national group that advocates for youth entrepreneurship, regularly holds “Lemonade Day” events to encourage community support for off-campus drink sales, after some high-profile community fights a few years ago. Schools can avoid underground markets while encouraging students’ business skills by creating neutral (not club-dependent) avenues for students to sell snacks on a rotating basis.

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